Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Social networking and museums

The BBC ran a news article today about a new plan for a museum lovers social networking site, that involves the National Portrait Gallery, Natural History Museum, the Tate, the Wallace Collection, Royal Armouries, Sir John Soane's Museum, V&A, British Museum and Imperial War Museum. That's quite an impressive list.

I've not seen too much in the way of interactive museum socialising outside of museums own websites in the past - there's still a limited amount of museums taking part on sites such as Twitter, and even Facebook tends only to have 'fan pages' and not actual groups run by museum learning staff.

Because of the large amount of traffic I follow on Twitter anyhow, I tend to limit the museums I follow at the moment to ones here in London - the British Museum's recently joined up but it's not doing much, the V&A doesn't really do much for me, but the Science Museum tweets are friendly, and very interactive and informative! So at this level I definitely think museums have a long way to go (from what i've seen - there's a few big ones in the States that seem prolific though).

So this National Museums Online Learning Project sounds very dull with a name like that, but if it's a purpose built project that will allow museums to get what they need, as well as their visitors getting what they need, from the site then it is definitely promising. I think these parts interest me the most:

The museums are collaborating to allow online visitors to search across their combined collections, so that a single search might gather material from any of them.

It will also allow visitors to set up social networking groups on the website where they can talk about what has inspired them and about their creative interests.

The project allows visitors to collect scrapbooks of images or text or videos that they find in the museums, which they can share with other website users.

Point A is fantastic, if it's got useful information. When I was at the Science Museum lates evening last month, I saw at one of their computer terminals they have an Object Wiki, which intrigued me. It's got info on collection pieces as well as publications and exhibitions. Very well collated resource. If this project can get together something comprehensive and useful for users, it's a huge step forward in what museums offer online for their visitors. I can't imagine the juggling they'll have to do intellectual property wise with this one.

The last couple of paragraphs sound a little bit geared toward sitting schoolkids down in front of this thing and forcing them to put together a project. I imagine if it's anything like trying to get them to complete worksheets or activities when actually in the museum it could be a ruddy mess. On the other hand, it could be terrific - the project outline mentions 'WebQuests' for kids, which will focus their use quite a bit. There seems to be the more general 'lifelong learning' approach for other users - considering most people when physically visiting museums do little to engage with other visitors, this could be a fantastic way for people to get together and almost debrief about their visiting experiences. Flickr-like photo sharing, a bit of blog-esque or message board stuff, it'll be great. Not to mention a ridiculously useful resource for the learning and audiences staff at participating museums to feed off! The mutual feedback that would (hopefully) ensue could really enrich visitor experience for these museums.

At any rate, it will be an interesting project, I just hope the funding will continue for it - it's no use paying for this sort of thing to be set up and then forgetting it needs dedicated staff, maintenance, and development. Too often web projects for museums go this way, and it'd be frustrating to see such a bit ship sink.